War scribes' old haunt rises from rubble of a nightmare past

BEIRUT DAYS
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The Independent Online
Just when you thought it was safe to go back to Beirut ... the Commodore has returned.

Even hardened scribes might cringe at the memory: the filthy rooms, the sweat-smeared bar counter, dingy corridors, the lavatories that wouldn't flush, and bills of epic proportions.

How did so many male journalists work in the wretched place, let alone smoke so much dope, drink so much booze and seduce - or attempt to seduce - so many women? While the Sarajevo Holiday Inn is the latest in a mythic line of war reporters' retreats, I always thought it would be difficult to shake off the nightmare of the old Commodore.

Not so, it seems. For the new Commodore is a quite different beast, one that has almost self-consciously altered its shape to forget the past: automatic doors, card keys to enter the bedrooms, a computerised switchboard and digitally-controlled lifts. The Lebanese Boubes family, which has some Syrian roots and has bought a 25-year contract from the Kuwaiti owners to run the Commodore, has turned the old hulk into the starship Enterprise, all marble floors and columns. The seamy ''Casbah'' nightclub, where gunmen and whores once pawed each other beside the gambling tables, has been turned into an underground conference chamber with translators' booths. The darkness of the old Chinese cafe, where journalists once told their long - and usually fictitious - war stories, is now a Japanese restaurant, complete with wooden warriors, a flowing river crossed by a wooden bridge and four goldfish.

The Boubes family won't name a figure but it cost around $20m (pounds 13m) to get rid of the nightmare past. And - thanks be to the gods that watched over us in the days when Israeli shells crashed around (and, on one occasion, into) the old Commodore - there is no parrot. Ah, the parrot. Suicide should be contemplated if that wretched story should be retold - as it assuredly will when the scribes return for just one more drink.

The parrot, they will write, could whistle like an incoming shell and mimic Beethoven's Fifth Symphony. The parrot went missing, they will tell readers, when the old Commodore was wrecked by Druze and Shia gunmen in 1986. And they will recount how they vainly raised reward money for the bird's return. And when the staff who had befriended the journalists were summarily dismissed, those same reporters ignored their suffering, preferring instead to lavish their putative generosity on the parrot. This moral discrepancy will be missing, of course, from their forthcoming stories.

But come back they undoubtedly will, to stay in the $130 rooms or, more likely, the $240 suites, to swagger into the only symbol of the past - a brand-new ''News Bar'', its awful wall-to-wall carpeting illustrated with the front pages of the newspapers that once poured so many dollars into the hotel's dreadful predecessor. Not one of the old hotel staff works at the Commodore now; for the official opening in a few days' time, a Sudanese doorman in gold-fringed blue uniform will greet bow-tied guests.

Of course, images linger. Here stood the front door where the AP's Gerry Labelle was nicked by a ricocheting bullet when he slipped out of the bar to check the office news wire. Here was the spot where Terry Anderson sat at New Year's Eve dinner less than three months before kidnappers took him away for a seven-year stretch in a basement. Here stood the reception desk where an NBC television producer was presented with a phone bill to the United States slightly larger than the cost of a first-class return air ticket to New York. Here was the bedroom ... But no, some memories are best left in the hundreds of tons of rubble that Samir Boubes, the half- British son of the hotel's proprietor, has hauled out of the old Commodore.

He acknowledges he is pleased that the new Commodore does not resemble the old. ''The internal walls of our Lebanese restaurant are made of Aleppo stone, the furniture, heating system, kitchens and laundry are American; we've totally rebuilt the place,'' he said. ''We're a centre-of-town hotel and we're looking for businessmen to stay here. We may get a few journalists but I don't think we'll get that many - I'm not that pessimistic.''

And at least there'll be no parrot, I add. But a strange expression crosses Samir Boubes's face, a mixture of discretion and palpable concern. ''Well, not quite,'' he said. ''We had so many people talking to us about the bloody parrot that ...'' And here there was a moment of silence as the young man reflected upon the impact of his words. ''Well, we're going to get a parrot.''

Reader, I fled.

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